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April 22, 2005

On Bullshit and Humbug

Posted by Anthony Daniels

Anthony Daniels elucidates the difference between bullshit and humbug. He finds that humbug is the besetting sin of public discourse.

Not long ago, I read an impressive article - The only poverty is in the head - in The Times by a philosopher called Jamie Whyte. It was impressive not because of its exceptional profundity, but because it pointed out something perfectly obvious (and in an age of deceit, as Orwell said, the first duty of the intellectual is to state the obvious).

The article stated that, on the definition of poverty most commonly used by demagogically sentimental politicians, poverty was ineradicable, even if everyone's income doubled, tripled or quadrupled. Indeed, it would be possible on the definition to have multimillionaires who suffered from very severe poverty if everyone else in their society were billionaires.

The definition of poverty is anyone with an income less than 60 per cent of the median income. It follows that the impoverishment of the rich, without enriching the poor, would decrease poverty. This is an idea that is uncomfortably familiar to anyone who lives in Britain. And there can be no doubt that it chimes with human psychology: hatred of the rich being so much stronger an emotion than love of the poor.

Because I was impressed by the article, which seemed to be a beacon of honesty in a fog of obfuscation, I bought the author's little book, A Load of Blair. In it, he analyses the Prime Minister's rhetoric, which is usually empty of content but not without emotional impact. What the Prime Minister says is not at all interesting, from the intellectual point of view, in fact it is exceedingly dull, but it is very important. Vacuity, high moral tone and intellectual nullity is a most unfortunate combination, enough to drive you stark mad if you pay too much attention.

As a result of reading Mr Whyte's book, I re-read an essay by the philosopher, Max Black, entitled The Prevalence of Humbug. It seems to me that, if there is one single explanation of our current malaise, it is in the prevalence of humbug.

As Professor Black pointed out, humbug inheres in other people, never in oneself. And, although we all think that we have a pretty good nose for humbug, a satisfactory definition eludes even those of us who have tried to find one. A recently published little book called On Bullshit, by the American philosopher Harry Frankfurter, suggests that the defining characteristic of bullshit, which he takes to be a less genteel term for humbug, is that it is an utterance whose purpose is not to convey truth, or even to convey an outright lie, but to have an effect, usually on interlocutors.

This is part of humbug, but surely not all of it. Indeed, bullshit is not exactly the same as humbug. For example, I talk bullshit if I discourse on a subject about which I know nothing, with the intention of making others believe that I am in fact knowledgeable about it. But this is not humbug.

The extra dimension that humbug has is that of moral or emotional strain. A humbug affects a moral or emotional concern that he does not really feel. Because he cannot admit to others, and in part even to himself, that, actually, he doesn't give a damn, he adopts exaggerated and high-falutin language to cover up the absence of feeling.

Now in proportion as virtue is believed to be the adoption of the correct attitudes (or poses), as expressed in theoretical language, rather than the difficult self-discipline of conforming one's conduct to a code of ethics, so the number of humbugs, and the prevalence of humbug, will increase. And not only will humbug become the ruling principle of society and government, but people's ability to detect humbug will decline. They will come to accept the ersatz for the real.

Humbug is nothing new of course. Professor Black pointed out that a society completely without humbug is impossible: but that is no reason not to try to expose it wherever and whenever it occurs. We can't escape death, but that does not make the medical enterprise ridiculous or worthless.

Pecksniffery is amusing in individuals, but when it becomes the ruling characteristic of government and administration it is a serious matter. I have heard many hospital administrators, for example, say that they care "passionately" about the medical service they are just about to reduce or eliminate, in order to be able to employ yet more of their own type in offices. But why should we be interested in the alleged emotional life of hospital administrators? Why do they feel compelled to use high-flown language? And why are so many people taken in by it?

I used to think that the British could never be taken in by the kind of shallow emotionalism, the affective incontinence, of American tele-evangelists, whose crookedness is written on their faces and in their every gesture; but now I realise that I was wrong. You can't go to a meeting of public administrators in Britain these days without getting a good dose of the bureaucratic equivalent of tele-evangelism.

There is an important characteristic of humbug: it uses language that has connotation but no denotation. It commits the speaker or writer to nothing, but leaves the impression that he is, in the cant phrase, "a caring person". Just as a modern hospital administrator hopes one day to have a hospital entirely without beds or medical staff, so politicians hope one day to have language deprived entirely of anything except connotation.

Humbug is the quickest way, if not to virtue itself, at least to feeling virtuous. The more transcendent importance we grant to our feeling-tone, rather than to our actual behaviour, the more tempted we shall be to indulge in humbug. That is why pop singers, inter alia, so often indulge in banal political humbug once they become famous. Their way of life, and their art itself (using the term art loosely), explicitly and implicitly places self-indulgence at the head of human desiderata: in exchange, they affect a concern for the welfare of the planet.

Always to act egotistically and in one's own narrow self-interest, and yet feel virtuous: such is the benefit of humbug. Self-righteousness and unscrupulousness march hand in hand, and bullying sentimentality becomes the prevailing national characteristic.

Anthony Daniels is a writer and retired earlier this year as a doctor.

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"The definition of poverty is anyone with an income less than 60 per cent of the median income."

.... from which one can conclude that Communism eradicates poverty. If you make the median income low enough by giving everyone basically the same (nothing) then no-one will be poor - so it is possible to "eradicate poverty" if you screw the system up enough.

Normally, of course, you get something resembling a bell curve. What this is is just a statement against enterprise ; it's not so much that "no one must be poor", more that "no-one can be rich" or even "everyone must be the same, except for us at the top".

Just shows what rubbish these ideas are. And what an excellent writer Mr Daniels is (looking forward to the new book).

These kind of ideas really are about keeping the jobs of the therapy/Social Services mob who benefit from the underclass he writes so presciently of.

Posted by: Paul at April 22, 2005 09:36 AM

The chattering classes from all sides of the political divide are decrying the mendaciousness of the politicians at this election time and the ‘general public’ are ‘fed up with all politicians’ according to the vox pops. But it is not the politicians that are mainly at fault, though they are a particularly poor crop this season. The ‘general public’, the hoi polloi are almost entirely to blame for the deficiencies of their potential elected representatives, either because they voted for the wrong ‘uns, or failed to vote at all. Those that did vote did so in large numbers for the incumbent snake oil salesman, twice in succession, despite the transparent nonsense of his duplicity both prior to his election and to his re-election. They will, it seems, vote him in for a third time, notwithstanding the only political consistency he displayed throughout his second term was on a matter, it would appear, that most of them violently disagree with (in a pacifist kinda way): viz. the Iraq invasion. And it would have happened anyway (perfectly justifiably) whether or not he had jumped on the bandwagon. That was a given as soon as the loonies took an aeronautical short cut to Heaven via the upper floors of the WTC. If his erstwhile supporters are as incensed as they pretend, they should rid us of this venal, grandstanding, egregious con man by voting for another party. But the cognoscenti of the multicultiliterati that now comprise the English ‘ruling class’ simply can’t bring themselves to admit that they were wrong. Though he is a prime example of why the word ‘wanker’ was coined; he’s their wanker, so they will vote for him. Despite the fact that he and his cohorts are frittering away the hard won political heritage and culture of this country they will not admit that they were stupid in the first place to believe his banal brand of bullshit.
The only way to keep politicians in check is to vote them out of office with judicious regularity. Come in No.10 and No.11 your time is up! As for Howard, if he would stop trying to emulate Blair and promise to grab our Country back from the Euromafia, he would get in by a landslide. But he won’t, because too many of his party too have their lips glued to the teat of the Brussels bosom. So we are doomed to suffer another 4-5 years of the theft of our Nation, both by the frauds masterminded in Brussels and by the influx of thieves through the back doors of Britain that have been deliberately propped ajar by the government. Wake up Britain, for God’s sake. Before it’s too late. Winston Churchill, who a large majority of you recently chose in a nationwide TV poll as the Greatest Ever Briton is spinning in his grave.

Posted by: Frank Pulley at April 22, 2005 03:10 PM

Trying to out-Bliar Bliar is going to get MH nowhere. Bliar's nonsense might be drivel, but he's good at it, and unfortunately for MH he can't project rubbish as well as Bliar does.

Tories need to push reality. Virtually everything the Labour mob tell people is a lie. Their statistics are rubbish. I'm a teacher, my wife is a nurse, and I've a mate who is a copper. Bliar's figures are just fantasy. They fiddle them.

If the Tories lose this election (which seems likely) it'll be much more obvious next time, because the money will have run out. There's an old cliche about fooling all of the people some of the time.

I also think we're in danger of seeing some fairly extensive protests; the M4 protest might mushroom, and the Council Tax "rebanding" is likely to send costs soaring. Let's hope so if the pigs in the trough get their noses back in.

Posted by: Paul at April 23, 2005 10:54 AM

Dr. Daniels might have effectively substituted tele-evangelist with Bill Clinton without diluting humbug. I have never understood his evanescent feeling the pain of another.

Posted by: Jim Stallings at June 27, 2006 12:43 AM

common curtosy and respect never go out of style

Posted by: dennis brochu at November 13, 2008 12:18 AM
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